Washington's suburbs are set to receive nearly $5 million more in federal money to combat what lawmakers described yesterday as "an exploding gang problem" that needs aggressive, regional cooperation to solve.
"This problem isn't limited to one community," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va), who gathered at the Capitol with other lawmakers to announce the House's passage of a spending bill that includes money for anti-gang initiatives. "We're serious about dealing with this on a regional level," Wolf said.
Included in the legislation, which will be voted on next week by the Senate and is expected to pass, is $2.5 million to fund Northern Virginia's Regional Gang Task Force and $2.3 million for Maryland's Regional Gang Initiative -- money that officials say will "keep Montgomery and Prince George's County communities safer." The Shenandoah Valley task force will receive $587,000.
Lawmakers said the money would be used not only for law enforcement but also for education and prevention programs.
"Gang violence is a huge issue we have to address," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). "The time for action is now."
Among other things, the bill would provide $85 million to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to carry out its programs. In October, the group opened a chapter at Hutchison Elementary School in Herndon, where gang-related crimes have spread across the once rural town.
Wolf, who has secured more than $10 million for gang prevention programs in Virginia since 2003, said he is pushing the organization to open clubs in Loudoun and Prince William counties to create safe places for at-risk children after school.
Although police and other officials in Washington's suburbs once avoided using the "gang" word, lawmakers are now vocal in their attempts to battle a problem that has touched hundreds of children in the past few years alone.
Montgomery police say their county has has about 20 gangs, with 500 members. Fairfax County has an estimated 2,500 gang members, and D.C. police put gang membership at 800 to 1,000.
"We know there's an exploding gang problem," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.). "We know we have to make the capital region safer."
One of the biggest threats to local safety, officials say, is the spread of Latino gangs. Salvadoran immigrants founded the violent Mara Salvatrucha gang in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Since then the gang, also known as MS-13, has spread to more than 30 states -- including Maryland and Virginia -- and several Central American nations.
The most violent attacks and homicides in the Washington region can be linked to Latino gangs, which officials believe are vying for dominance.
At least 20 homicides have been linked to Latino gangs in the Washington region since 2000, including seven in Fairfax County, four in the District and three in Montgomery.
Lawmakers stressed that the gang problem must be addressed internationally as well as nationally. To that end, $3.3 million would be allocated to establish a legal attache office in El Salvador to monitor illegal activity -- conducted by gangs and terrorists -- as well as establish a relationship with Salvadoran police.